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How to grow your purpose-driven company with PR

The rise of social entrepreneurship in the past few years has brought about a very different kind of company. Instead of corporate social responsibility, we’re seeing the creation of companies with social and environmental activism at their very core.

While a few old timers, like Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s, have been around for years, since 2006 we’ve seen a massive spike in the growth of purpose-driven startups.

And it’s not just companies that are changing, consumers are also expecting more from the brands they buy. According to a global study by Edelman, 64% of respondents identify themselves as belief-driven buyers, meaning they actively choose, switch, avoid or even boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues.

The interesting thing is that people don’t just expect brands to play a passive role, more and more see the potential for companies to play an active role in addressing social and environmental challenges. According to the study:

  • 46% believe brands have better ideas for solving their country’s problems than governments
  • 53% believe brands can do more to solve social ills than government
  • 54% believe it’s easier to get brands to solve problems than to get governments to take action

The question is, as they grow and mature, are these new purpose driven companies prepared to meet the expectations of the belief driven buyer?

At the last edition of PRLab Meetup: Brand Activism, From Purpose to Action, we heard form Alette Boogman, Head of PR at TOMS EMEA. As one of the best known purpose-driven companies, she gave us insights into how the company leveraged PR as a tool to raise awareness of their mission to a global level and, interestingly, how their PR strategy has evolved since then to bring their purpose further.

TOMS’ PR strategy in the early days

During a trip to Argentina founder Blake Mycoskie had been struck by the amount of children he met who couldn’t afford shoes. These children were at risk of contracting infections from soil borne diseases which could greatly impact their health and future. Having founded a number of companies in the past, his entrepreneurial mind thought up a business model which could generate funding to provide free shoes to children in need.

In 2006 TOMS was one of the first companies to introduce a 1 for 1 model. Buy 1 pair of shoes, give one pair to a child in need. Before that there weren’t a lot of companies that enabled consumers to make such a direct impact.

This made Tom’s a very different breed of company from its inception. As Mycoskie stated in an interview with Business Insider, “we are a mission with a company”.

The problem was, in the beginning, the team didn’t have budget for paid media. As a result, PR and earned media became central to the company’s marketing strategy from day one. There were 3 main strategies TOMS relied on to get their mission off the ground:

Building a community

It was actually university students who were the company’s first brand promoters. Already major advocates for what the company was trying to achieve, in 2007 a group of students from Pepperdine University staged the first One Day Without Shoes event. During that day you could see a mass of students walking to and from classes completely barefoot. Photos of the event were shared to raise awareness of the mission TOMS was trying to achieve.

The major difference with companies built for social good is that consumers are not only more ready to buy and expect change from them, they’re also willing and ready to help these brands achieve their goals. According to the 2018 Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose Study of US consumers:

  • 78% of people would tell others to buy brands from purpose driven companies
  • 73% would share information or stories about them
  • 68% said they would advocate for issues the company supports
  • 68% are more willing to share content from purpose driven companies in their social networks than from traditional companies

“For many retailers, their profit margins are low. They spend lots of money on advertising – whether it’s paying celebrities to endorse your product or taking out significant billboards. Toms doesn’t have any ad spend. A big portion of our spend goes to giving. But by giving, we build a community and people recommend us through word of mouth and on social media,” Mycoskie shared in an interview.

Today’s purpose driven buyers don’t just want to advocate a company’s purpose through their dollars, euros and yen, they want to be part of the action. As Alette explained during her talk, the best strategy for young social good startups is to, “Build a movement, not a PR list.”

Bringing in influencers

When you don’t have a lot of visibility and journalists aren’t knocking on your door, remember, you always have your social network to turn to. And this is exactly what TOMS did. Just like your consumers, the people in your network will be more than happy to endorse a company that has a great purpose behind it. Already having a large network from his previous entrepreneurial endeavors, in the beginning Mycoskie leveraged his network to spread word of mouth about TOMS even further.

“As PR people we have a huge circle of concern. Use this circle and you can have a huge impact on your own company,” Alette shared.

Great storytelling

Of course, one of the most important things you need to start with are great campaigns and impactful messaging. Instead of focusing on your product, consider your impact.

At TOMS, Alette’s campaign building mantra is to, “Start with what we’re doing as a company.” Ask yourself, “Why is it important? What’s the impact? How can we craft messaging around that? That’s how you get your campaign.”

“Purpose is always used as the lens we look through when creating” she explained. At the moment she spends 60% of her time on giving stories and 40% on the actual product.

35 million pairs of shoes later…

TOMS’ success became clear very quickly. So far the company has given over 35 million pairs of shoes to children in need and has helped restore the eyesight of more than 250,000 people. It’s now a global brand available across international markets.

But remember, you’re never done. Your purpose can and should evolve. The next goal was to go further, from providing basic services to fueling human potential. But what does that take?

According to Alette, “It’s so important for businesses to have a core purpose but how you express it and how you want your customers to act can change.”

At this point, TOMS decided it was time to evolve their giving model and here are some of the changes they’ve made:

From passive purchase to active participation

With more revenue comes more opportunities to bring consumers closer to the impact they’re making. Instead of just sharing videos, photos and stories from the company’s giving trips, TOMS has leveraged advances in VR technology allowing visitors to their stores to experience the impact their purchase can have. The first experience followed TOMS employees on a giving trip to Peru. The more you can connect your audience to your purpose, the stronger your impact will be.

From being the hero to enabling heroes

As part of the evolution of their strategy, TOMS has shifted from being the hero to celebrating heroes. After all the initial help they received in getting started, they’re now able to give back and help other social entrepreneurs realize their vision. As a result, the company is now partnering with changemakers across the world.

For example, TOMS recently partnered with Josh Coombes a hairdresser from london who’s on a mission to provide free haircuts to the homeless. Beyond the haircuts, this initiative is more about creating a human connection by listening and sharing these people’s stories. TOMS is now helping Coombes to spread his hashtag #DoSomethingForNothing.

As Alette explained, “You don’t need a lot to make an impact. You can start small.” Homelessness is an issue that’s always been central to TOMS’ purpose, “highlighting the work of others, rather than the company, gives legitimacy to the change you want to make.”

From giving global to giving local around the world

An important part of making real impact is actually listening to your audience and taking time to reassess how you can improve and make your efforts even stronger. Ultimately, aligning business needs with consumer insights can also lead to major innovation.

While the company had many supporters, TOMS also faced some criticism. One of the most contentious issues leveled at the company was whether or not their efforts were actually undermining local shoe production.

At the time, the company was producing shoes in a select number of countries and then shipping them globally as part of their giving initiative. Listening to their critics and analyzing the possibilities, what they realized was that moving production from global factories to local factories would actually align both their mission and business needs.

As the first step towards its giving locally strategy, TOMS went on a mission to build a “responsible, sustainable” shoe industry in Haiti. While the company had given many shoes to people in need, especially after the recent natural disasters the country faced, it was now also going to focus on providing jobs. By producing locally they’re also cutting costs on the shipping of their free shoes. The company’s long term strategy is to produce at least one third of all giving shoes in the places where they’re distributed.

Instead of ignoring critics, the best thing you can do is take criticism and learn from it as a company.

Can companies take a stand if they’re making profit from it?

Finally, as more companies begin jumping on the purpose-driven bandwagon, what we’re seeing is the rise of purpose washing. We’re seeing some brands like Pepsi misuse purpose driven marketing and fail, while others like Nike have used this momentum to raise important debates. One important question raised after Alette’s session was, “Can profit focused companies also take a stand on issues?”

According to Alette, “We believe they can but it needs to be:

  • Built in to the brand’s core mission
  • Needs to backup issue advocacy with concrete action that aligns with their values
  • And followed by a long term commitment and systemic change”

As more businesses are influenced by the rise of social entrepreneurship and purpose marketing, we’re seeing more brand activism than ever. To actually use this momentum to help create change, keep Alette’s three must-haves in mind.

For more great insights from top speakers join us for the next edition of the PRLab Meetup! Until then, check out our website with more PR and marketing tips from the PRLab Hub team.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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